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Update on school bus safety.

Bus companies, local school boards, parents and some transportation equipment manufacturers are trying to decide on the safest way for children who use wheelchairs to ride on regular school buses. Last January, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) published school bus wheelchair restraint regulations that safe seating advocates called discriminatory and inadequate (Exceptional Parent, March 1993). Supporters of comparable safe seating await decisions on two petitions that ask NHTSA to reconsider its regulations-and they have a lawsuit pending in the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that will move forward if NHTSA refuses.

Wheelchairs on regular school buses

At the same time, transportation officials, equipment manufacturers, attorneys and other concerned people have been discussing wheelchair restraint standards at forums such as the Second National Conference and Exhibition on Transporting Students with Disabilities, held in Georgia last March. Speaking at the conference, Michigan attorney Lynwood Beekman identified a range of possible ways to decrease liability risks brought about by transporting students in wheelchairs on school buses.

Beekman suggested that students could be transporteel in regular bus seats with seat belts and other appropriate restraints if they were lifted or assisted in and out of their wheelchairs. He noted that alhough it is illegal to carry students with disabilities on and off school buses, once on board students may be shifted from wheelchairs into regular bus seats. Beekman cautioned that his suggestion would not be feasible without a careful plan to secure wheelchairs in a safe place and to evacuate all students from the bus in an emergency.

Transportation seating review checklist

Beekman recommended that a letter be sent to all parents of students with disabilities who use wheelchairs while being transported to and from school. The letter would advise parents of safety concerns and would suggest that parents and officials meet to go over a "Transportation Seating Review Checklist." The checklist would identify the type of wheelchair to be transported, any realistic alternative ways to transport the student in a motor vehicle, wheelchair securement and passenger restraint devices, padding and any extra supportive equipment that must be transported.

The letter would also remind parents that most users' manuals published by wheelchair manufacturers recommend against riding in wheelchairs in moving vehicles. At least one major wheelchair company affixes stickers that read "This wheelchair has not been approved for use as a seating surface within a moving vehicle" directly onto its product.

Parent involvement

Parents must make it clear to manufacturers that they are concerned about motor vehicle transportation for their children who use wheelchairs. Only then will manufacturers design transportable mobilityW devices and set appropriate standards for wheelchair tie-downs and passenger restraints. Advocate and transportation official Lyle Stephens encourages parents to read literature on specific wheelchair models and to ask manufacturers which wheelchairs can serve as safe seats in motor vehicles. "Put the heat on manufacturers," he advises. "[Ask] 'Is this a transportable wheelchair?"'

Developing transportable wheelchair standards

User preferences rather than inadequate technology may be why most wheelchairs cannot be safely transported in motor vehicles. It's a pretty good bet that all major players in the mobility device business could build a wheelchair that would pass a standard crash test. But such a wheelchair would be too heavy to satisfy consumers.

Another dimension of the problem involves certification testing of tie-downs and restraints. Testing needs to be more systematic--restraints, tie-downs and chairs that will be used together should be tested together. The development of effective testing procedures and standards for restraint and tie-down strength and placement is a major topic of debate among transportation organizations such as the International Standards Organization, the Rehabilitation Engineering Society of North America and the National Standards Conference for School Bus Operations. These and other organizations are working together to develop standards for a transportable wheelchair prior to the May 1995 meeting of the National Standards Conference, so that state and federal governments may begin to write these standards into law.

Recent developments strengthen efforts

While progress may be slow, awareness of the need for safety is growing. Now, more than ever before, special educators, transporters, school nurses, occupational and physical therapists and parents can be found working together to ensure that a "free, appropriate public education" includes safe transportation to and from that educational setting.

These individual efforts have been strengthened by several recent developments on the national level. The newly-implemented Part H of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) deals with education for infants and toddlers. This brings the issue of safe school bus seating for children of all sizes to the forefront.

Another relevant development is the formation of the Interagency Coordinating Council for Children with Disabilities, which held its first meeting in Washington, D.C., in August. The interagency Coordinating Council is the first congressionally mandated interagency committee to formally include parents as members.

A third development is the enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which raises the general level of awareness of access, mobility and safety issues. The ADA now requires that private school systems provide the same type of accessibility that IDEA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 have long required of public schools.

For the moment, concerned parents and transportation officials eagerly await the outcome of NHTSA's regulatory review or possible Appeals Court proceedings against them. Advocates for comparable safe seating hope these actions will result in a higher level of school bus safety for all children with disabilities.

Roseann Schwaderer is the rounding editor of Transporting Students with Disabilities newsletter and publisher of TD Safety Report, a newsletter that focuses on the ADA and transportation. She is also executive director of the Sweetwood Foundation, a non-profit company that operates the Clearinghouse on School/Special Transportation. For information on the publications, please write: Roseann Schwaderer, c/o Serif Press, Inc., 1331 H Street NW, Washington, D.C. 20005.
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Author:Schwaderer, Roseann
Publication:The Exceptional Parent
Date:Oct 1, 1993
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